Melba Recordings

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J.S. Bach Organ Sonatas

01/12/2009
Organ Australia (Australia)
Christa Rumsey

I have never been one for buying lots of CD's, but every now and then an organ CD appears on the market which I am desperate to own. A few months ago one of these popped up. I first heard it featured on ABC Classic FM and I was hooked instantly! Christopher Wrench's new recording of J.S. Bach's Six Sonatas for organ, commonly called the Six Trio Sonatas, was recorded in July 2003, and appeared on the Melba label earlier this year. The instrument chosen for this recording is in the Garrison Church in Copenhagen. Christopher Wrench, who frequently gives recitals in Denmark (after making a name for himself there at the International Organ Competition at Odense), relates that as soon as he played this instrument in 1998, preparing for a recital, he dreamt of recording the Six Sonatas here, believing that ‘the tonal freshness of this particular instrument and the exceptional agility of its mechanism would provide a superb medium for the realisation of Bach's vision’.

Anyone who has played Bach's Trio Sonatas knows what that involves. I often think of some of my pianist friends who play imposing works by Liszt and Chopin without blinking an eyelid, but when faced with a Mozart Sonata, they begin to tremble. That's what it's like with Bach's organ sonatas. The texture is light and clear, and great agility and stamina are required to execute 3 totally independent parts which, for quite long movements, zip along at great speed. A high level of concentration needs to be maintained at all times. Totally refined motor skills and complete control are a pre-requisite. There is nowhere to hide. When the going gets tough, there is nothing to "get stuck into". Any effort needed must be managed with total relaxation and serenity. Tradition has it that J.S. Bach wrote these amazing works for his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann to prepare him to be a fine organist. For a virtuoso like Bach this meant setting the stakes high!

Musically these works are infinitely rewarding, combining the utmost contrapuntal skill with refined musical imagination and expression, and all clothed in simplicity and exuberance. I know that some music lovers who find the works of Bach too heavy and demanding (hard to believe, I know, but there are some!) delight in these sonatas for their elegant, simple and exuberant joyousness. C.P.E. Bach, defending his father against criticism from such quarters (the famous travelling music connoisseur Charles Burney was amongst them), names these trios as a perfect example of Bach's mastery of the galant style, and says ‘that they will never grow old, but on the contrary, will outlive all revolutions and fashions in music’. And they have!

Christopher's rendition of these works is all we have come to expect of him. His musical concept and command of shaping musical lines are astounding. This is a mature artist at work who has not only great musical insight, but also the technical superiority to give it full expression. Ornaments are executed with clarity and imagination. Articulation is employed with the greatest refinement. Awareness of musical structure always informs the interpretation. Tempi are chosen well- too often performers with great technique try to dazzle their listeners with break-neck tempi and in the process sacrifice charm and eloquence. On this CD every line has shape and individuality and there is a lively and eloquent conversation going on at all times. In Sonata Nr 3 in D minor, 3'd movement, Christopher shows that he is quite capable of breathtaking speed (it's marked Vivace, after all!), but he never loses sight of musical detail. The slow middle movements are played with tender and insightful expression.

The organ, built in 1995 by Carsten Lund (a historical reconstruction of an organ built in 1724 by Schnitger pupil Lambert Daniel Kastens), sounds exquisite. The various colours of the organ are fully exploited, and that includes using ranks in octave transposition, to gain yet another registration. It is not an easy thing to perform all six Sonatas, never using exactly the same registration twice, especially given the fact that many stops are unsuitable for use in Trio Sonatas, making half the available stops off limits. For sheer beauty of sound Sonata Nr 4 in E flat major, 1st movement, for me was a highlight, and the middle movements juxtaposing just two flutes or the Quintadena 8' and Spitzflöit 4' (down one octave), with or without Tremulant, likewise. Such a beautiful instrument, and in lovely acoustic surroundings!

The CD, in its handsome cover giving Haussmann's famous portrait of the aging composer pride of place (it is the only authenticated portrait we have of Bach) is accompanied by a beautifully presented booklet containing all the information one could ask for: musical background notes in English, German and French; English notes on Christopher Wrench; two pictures of the splendid looking instrument (one in full colour) and two of the performer; the specification of the organ; the registrations used for each individual movement (although there are some small omissions and discrepancies here); plus recording details and information on the Melba Foundation, all adorned with snippets of Bach's manuscript of these sonatas.

So, if there is only one organ CD you buy this year, make it this one! Christopher Wrench is a musician Australia should be very proud of, the instrument is first class and you really can't go wrong with JSB, can you?